Lightoom and Darktable: the verdict two years after switching

Started Mar 25, 2017 | Discussions thread
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bkpix Contributing Member • Posts: 979
Lightoom and Darktable: the verdict two years after switching

Brush Creek Ranch, Wyoming, where I enjoyed an artist residency for a month last fall.

Can a Linux system handle serious photography?

In summer 2015, I posted a detailed account of my tentative switch from Windows7 and Lightroom to Linux and Darktable. This was sparked by sudden crashes that were afflicting my system, but in a deeper sense grew from frustration with Windows and, to a lesser degree, with Lightroom.

Once I headed for Linux, I decided to plunge in fully and commit to using Ubuntu and free, open-source photo software for several months – at least until the end of that year. That would give me a chance to see whether I could actually run my photography business on the new system.

My photo needs are straightforward. I make and sell hand-colored black and white photos, printed on an Epson 7600 modified with after-market ink. I also publish a subscription arts blog for which I regularly take photos at arts events. Finally, I do occasional freelance event and portrait photography. Over the past 10 years, I have collected about 50,000 digital images that I need to maintain access to.

For all this, I need a robust, reliable system that allows quick, easy downloads from camera cards; simple and easy tagging and rating of photos; and good control of black and white printing through the Epson 7600.

The verdict: After a few bumps along the way, it's Linux and free open-source photo software for me.

The programs I use are Rapid Photo Downloader, for loading images into the computer; DigiKam, for tagging and rating images; Darktable, for RAW conversion and detailed image processing; and Gimp, for printing. They are all free downloads and can be automatically installed by Ubuntu.

I don't see going back to Windows.

Evening at the ranch.

Rather than tell the whole story here, I suggest you read my previous post , and then come back and read the rest of this one for updated details.

Back so soon?

Learning to love Darktable

Let me say right off, Darktable wasn't easy to love at first. This is in part because it's modeled on Lightroom, so in a sense it aspires to be every bit as impenetrable as anything from Adobe.

But it's more because of the program's extreme flexibility, which is also an asset. (Imagine that a new Pentax DSLR came out with every button and dial programmable – and not labeled.) For RAW conversion and general post processing, Darktable offers a blizzard of ways to do the same thing, and at first I was lost in the forest, with all trees looking alike.

Finally, though, and with the help of just a few minutes of instructional video that's free on YouTube (look for Robert Hutton's stuff) I got my bearings. What's cool about Darktable is that you can pick your own suite of post-processing commands and set them up in the right-screen sidebar, ready for use.

What I like best about Darktable is the ease with which you can create custom masks for any image manipulation. That transforms post processing.

Performance art at Brush Creek.

What I still hate about Darktable

The keywording process is painfully slow and clunky. I put up at first with it, because it works, sort of.

But then I was saved from myself when I discovered – fairly late in the game – that, at least on my system, Darktable simply couldn't handle a collection of 50,000 photos. It sagged, it stalled, it ground to a halt. After the whole thing had worked so well with 10,000 photos, I was sure it could handle anything,. It couldn't. This was demoralizing enough that I briefly considered going back to Windows and Lightroom. Just briefly.

Adding DigiKam

I had read that DigiKam offers much better photo management tools than Darktable. The short version is, this is actually true. I now run DigiKam side by side with Darktable, and import photos for processing into Darktable only as I need to. DigiKam is quick and powerful and reliable for managing photos, and it doesn't choke on my 50,000-photo collection. Tagging photos and searching for them is at least as easy and possibly easier in DigiKam than it is in Lightroom.

Unfortunately, DigiKam crashes now and then. The crashes haven’t been catastrophic – meaning I haven’t lost any files – but they do happen.

Fresh snow in the meadow.

The longer version: What's going on under the hood

In both Darktable and Lightroom, we're talking non-destructive editing. That means the original image file is never changed by editing. Instead, the program keeps a list of all editing changes, kind of like a recipe, associated with each image. Also kept are image tags (key words that you use for finding things later), captions, and ratings.

Now, and this is important: By default, Lightroom keeps this information in just one place – the Lightroom library file. You can change this default setting, and should, if you run Lightroom, so that it also places all that info into an XML sidecar for each image. That way, if you ever abandon Lightroom – or if your Lightroom library file becomes hopelessly corrupted, as mine did – you still have all that info for each image.

I wish I had known this when I was still running Lightroom. I ended up losing all my edits, on those 50k images, because the library file was screwed up in the transition.

Darktable and DigiKam, by default, keep all such info in a separate XML sidecar file associated with each image

That means, among other things, that Darktable and DigiKam can speak to each other.

It also means you can import a file into Darktable, edit it, and then remove it from your Darktable collection – opening up space in the library – without losing your edits, which remain in the XML sidecar. Later, if you re-import the image to your collection, your edits are still there.

Dinner in Saratoga.

There is a problem with going back and forth between Darktable and DigiKam, and that is that Darktable reads the DigiKam sidecar file only once, when you import the image into Darktable. That means any changes you make to the image in either program, after import, won’t be picked up by the other. I think I’ve figured out a way to solve this issue, but haven’t had time to try it.

Cougar track in the snow.

The Gimp

I use Gimp (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) for printing and, in theory, for any editing that Darktable can’t do. In fact, I’ve never needed it for anything but printing. With the free Gutenprint plugin, it runs my rather outdated Epson 7600 like a fine watch. Epson hasn’t updated Windows drivers for the 7600 since Vista, though they worked for Windows7. I don’t think they work for 8 or 10, though, and so to stay in the Windows universe meant remaining stuck in an old version of the OS or buying a very expensive new printer, or finding yet another workaround.

Three-day-old cougar kill.

My system

I am running a fairly low-horsepower HP Pavilion (500-467c) off the shelf from Costco. To speed things up I installed a 256-megabyte solid state drive in place of the original 1-terabyte hard disk. On the SSD reside Linux and all programs. All photos go to an external hard drive, which is automatically backed up nightly to a separate drive; all text goes to Dropbox.

I added 8 gigabytes of RAM, bringing the total to 16g.

In 2016 I rented a K-1 to try out. If I had to process 36-meg images on a regular basis, I would upgrade my hardware.

I am also running an identical system on a Lenovo Thinkpad x130e laptop for out-of-office experiences. I could, in theory, copy downloaded/edited photo files and sidecar files over from one system to the other at the end of the day or week, but in fact I don’t. Instead I just redownload the camera cards onto the desktop system when I get home, as I never do much serious editing on the laptop.

Dinner at the Brush Creek artist colony.

In fall 2016 I spent a month on an artist residency in Wyoming with just my laptop to handle daily photography. For that, I bought a pair of new external hard drives for storage (so I could delete images off my camera cards) and copied the edited photos to my main drives when I got home.

In conclusion…

Linux isn’t perfect. Darktable remains a bit more complicated to use than Lightroom, though I’m quite happy with my current workflow. DigiKam crashes now and then. Gimp is sometimes perplexing (but so was Photoshop). And I kind of miss the simplicity of running just one piece of software for all photo work.

But the system works, very well. It’s free. And even with the DigiKam crashes it’s a whole lot less buggy and irritating than Windows and Lightroom used to be. The system doesn’t gum up with crud the way Windows used to, and I don’t have to pay a subscription fee to Adobe.

I recently updated to Ubuntu 16 on my laptop, and will soon update the desktop. No problems. One reason updating the OS was so easy is that I no longer store any data files of any kind, from text to photos to music, on my computer’s main drive. Instead everything goes to Dropbox or external drives.

So is Linux for everyone? Probably not. The system has improved over the past few years but still is best suited to people who don’t mind a bit of tinkering. On the other hand, I have been easily able to find clear and definitive answers online to any problem I’ve had with Ubuntu, and there haven’t been many problems at all. That simply isn’t true with Windows.

Case in point: I still maintain my wife’s employer-required Windows home computer. Can someone tell me how to delete the AVG anti-virus software on it? No matter how many times I uninstall, it returns in a few days. It’s a virus itself.

Now, if only I could convince my wife’s employer that she could swap her Windows10 home computer for something in an attractive shade of Linux.

A note on the photos

I took all the pictures posted here last fall at Brush Creek Ranch. My K-5, K-5IIs, and a good assortment of Pentax lenses proved perfect for a month of hiking and photography in the high-desert mountains of Wyoming.

An abandoned ranch cabin.

 bkpix's gear list:bkpix's gear list
Canon EOS 7D Mark II Pentax KP Canon 6D Mark II Canon EF 135mm F2L USM Canon EF 28-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM +11 more
Pentax K-1 Pentax K-5
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